Valor Friday

| April 24, 2020

Sergeant Reckless

In today’s Valor Friday, Mason continues his theme of unusual valor awardees. Here’s his tribute to another four legged warrior, Sergeant Reckless. Only the Marines could come up with a name like that, one would think, but it turns out to be very apt.


Last week I highlighted several war dogs, some of whom had been awarded significant valor awards. There is one other animal that stands out in American military history; the horse. Long a fixture of cavalry units, it’s hard to imagine a scene of the Civil War or the American Old West in which there isn’t a mounted soldier. Horse cavalry units (known as “Dragoons” pre-Civil War) have been a part of the US Army since its inception.

Large horse cavalry units were still organized as recently as WWII. During the war most of these units were changed to mechanized cavalry, trading the horse for armored vehicles and light trucks like the Jeep.

Some specialized horse units participated through to the end of WWII, including in the Philippine Scouts, the US 10th Mountain Division (as part of their Mounted Reconnaissance Troop), and in the German Army on the Eastern Front (where machines went to die).

After WWII the age of the horse soldier was over. The “dog faced pony soldier” famous in Joe Biden’s imagination was to be no more. There remains only one unit of horse troops now in the Army; the Caisson Platoon of the US 3rd Infantry Regiment “The Old Guard” at Arlington National Cemetery. The US Marine Corps likewise retains a single, small unit of horse mounted Marines; the Mounted Color Guard out of Barstow, CA.

When in service the horse served not only as the means upon which to transport soldiers but also to transport equipment. It’s in this pack animal role that today’s subject gained notoriety, rank, and several valor awards for actions during the Korean War.

It was the fall of 1952 in Korea. The US 5th Marines had been one of the earliest American units sent to the Korean peninsula after the North invaded the South in June 1950, and they were still fighting. The regiment had fought through some of the most harrowing battles of the war, including the amphibious landings at Inchon and the brutal winter Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.

The rough terrain of the Korean battlefields led some Marines of the Recoilless Rifle Platoon, Anti-Tank Company to look for alternative means of transporting their heavy equipment than by vehicle. Their salvation came in the form of a former race horse.

Lieutenant Eric Pedersen purchased the female Mongolian horse from a stable boy at a race track in October 1952 for $250 of his own money. That’s equivalent to $2,435 today and at the time was about a lieutenant’s monthly base pay, so it was not an impulse buy for this young man. The stable boy selling the horse had needed the money to buy a prosthetic leg for his sister after she’d stepped on a landmine. Even with that motivation, the young man was so attached to the four year old horse that he wept when the Marines took her.

Mongolian horses are said to have changed little as a breed since the time of Ghengis Khan. They are small for a horse (but not small enough to be considered a pony). They’re known for being very hardy animals and are prized for their stamina in extreme conditions. Mongolians have been known to be able to gallop for 10km without rest and have hard hooves that don’t require shoes or regular trimming.

In Mongolia, the horses live outside year round where the temperatures go as low as -40 and as high as 86 degrees. They also forage for their own food. Many of these traits could also be attributed to the men of the US Marines.

Fighting in mountainous terrain, the lieutenant was looking for a pack animal to carry up to nine shells for his recoilless rifle platoon. Each shell weighed 24 pounds. As a mountain-bred pack animal, with excellent abilities to navigate unstable terrain, their new horse would be perfect for the role.

They named the mare “Reckless”, in part for the attitude of the men who operate a recoilless rifle and in honor of the weapon she would be supporting, the recoilless being known as the “reckless rifle.”

In preparation for combat, the men of the platoon began to train her. Pedersen has his wife mail a pack saddle while several men assisted in her training, primarily the platoon’s sergeant Technical Sergeant Joseph Latham. Private First Class Monroe Coleman was given the task of being Reckless’s caretaker. Meanwhile, the platoon’s Corpsman, Hospitalman First Class George “Doc” Mitchell of the US Navy, became the horse’s veterinarian.

Before bringing her into battle, TSgt Latham trained the horse to do some amazing feats. She first learned how not to become entangled in barbed wire. She learned to lie down when under shell fire and would head for a bunker at the cry of “Incoming!” In a play on words for their own basic training, known to the Marines as “Boot Camp”, they called Reckless’s training “Hoof Camp.”

Reckless had a gentle disposition. She’d freely roam the company area, nose her way into the men’s tents and sometimes slept next to the men. She’d even curl up next to Latham’s tent stove on really cold nights.

Like most in the infantry, Reckless was not picky about eating. She once ate her horse blanket. She would impress the men by eating virtually anything put in front of her. Scrambled eggs, Coca-Cola, beer, hard candy, shredded wheat, and anything else they could find. She could not be trusted around any food left in the open, even eating $30 worth of poker chips from Latham’s winnings. Doc Mitchell advised the men to limit her daily intake of Coke to two bottles.

Ladened down with six shells, Reckless’s first combat experience was in a place called Hedley’s Crotch. I wonder if they make postcards, but I digress. When the large recoilless rifle fired for the first time the horse jumped straight up and came back down shaking. Coleman, her caretaker, tried to soothe her.

When a second round was fired she snorted and after that settled into the life of a front line anti-tank unit. By the end of the day’s mission she was so relaxed that she was trying to eat a discarded helmet liner.

An exceedingly intelligent horse, Reckless appeared to have an interest in how the rifle operated. She also only needed to be shown a new route a couple of times and then would be able to navigate the route by herself from there on out. One Marine noted it was good she could navigate unaccompanied, because nobody could keep up with her.

She was also perfect for running phone wire, hauling the spools on her back. In camp, she was a consummate professional, happily serving her role in taking literal weight off the Marines’ backs.

March 26th, 1953. The 5th Marines were involved in the Battle for Outpost Vegas. This battle happened only a few months before the end of the war. Peace talks were in progress and the Chinese initiated a major offensive to better their position at the bargaining table.

Over the course of three days, the Marines would face off against thousands of Chinese troops. The Marines would incur more than 1,000 casualties and inflicted twice that many on the enemy. The ferocious battle saw massive artillery and bombing strikes. According to reports, the artillery barrages from both sides were so intense that shells from opposing sides hit each other in mid air. It was described as the most savage battle in Marine Corps history to that point. In the middle was Reckless, a lone horse running supplies back and forth for the beleaguered Marines.

During the battle, Reckless would acquit herself admirably. In just a single day she made 51 treks across the battlefield, drawing enemy fire as she traversed the “no-man’s land” of landmined rice paddies and ascended the 45 degree mountain side. Enemy rounds came at the mare at the rate of 500 per minute. In her 51 treks the intrepid equine carried 386 recoilless rounds for a total weight of more than 9,000 pounds and covered 35 miles. In one day, while under fire.

On each trip, after dropping off fresh ammunition and other supplies, the Marines would lash the dead and wounded to the mare and she’d carry the injured men back to safety. After the wounded in action were offloaded, she’d resupply and head back up the mountain. Tirelessly, taking breaks sparingly to eat and drink, she came back up the mountain again and again.

“It’s difficult to describe the elation and the boost in morale that little white-faced mare gave Marines as she outfoxed the enemy bringing vitally needed ammunition up the mountain,” Sgt. Maj. James E. Bobbitt said.

The Marines were not only fond of this horse, they loved her. Not just loved, they beloved her. She was one of them. A Marine with a capital “M”. Her fellow Marines loved her so much they would use their own flak jackets to help protect her when on the deck as enemy shells rained down.

Their love was returned. During the battle she positioned herself in front of some trapped and exposed Marines trying to make it up the hill. She shielded these men from enemy fire as if they were her foals.

In the aftermath of the battle, which her bravery and fidelity helped win, she was promoted to corporal. She’d been wounded twice. First she was hit above her left eye by shrapnel and again on her left flank. For her wounds, the Marines would give her two Purple Hearts.

In an interesting historical footnote, Reckless would be the first and only horse to participate in an amphibious landing. The 1st Marine Division (1st MARDIV), to which the 5th Marines were attached, were moved from Camp Casey to Inchon to participate in a landing hundreds of miles south of Inchon.

When the CO of the transport ship saw the Marines on the dock with their horse, he refused her transport. You see, this particular ship had won awards for cleanliness in the last two years and the skipper was not going to have a Leatherneck horse ruin his reputation. Luckily the Marines had some solid operations personnel because they were able to produce the loading plan, signed off on by the captain of the transport, that specifically included the horse and her equipment.

Once at sea Reckless became sick, but the Marines cleaned it up. Her iron stomach caught up to her new mode of transport and she didn’t have any further issues.

Shortly after the ceasefire ended the war, the commanding general of the 1st MARDIV, Major General Randolph Pate gave Reckless a battlefield promotion to sergeant for her bravery under fire. He did this in a formal presentation complete with reviewing stands. She stood proudly at attention while a citation was read that her “attention and devotion to duty make her well qualified for promotion to the rank of sergeant.” The horse blanket, partly chewed, with her corporal’s stripes and ribbons on it was removed and a new blanket with sergeant’s stripes and her ribbons on it was placed on the horse as she beamed with pride.

Speaking of her awards, in addition to her two Purple Hearts, she wore two Presidential Unit Citations, a Navy Unit Commendation, the Marine Good Conduct Medal, the National Defense Service Medal, and the Korean War service medals.

The legend of Reckless’s valor and her publicized promotion made it into a Saturday Evening Post article. She was now famous across America. The attention she received from this enabled the Marines to rotate her out of the Korean Theater and to Camp Pendleton, CA.

At Pendleton she would accompany the Marines on training marches. She made public appearances and otherwise represented the 5th Marines. She remained on active duty for another six years. In 1959, General Pate, now Commandant of the Marine Corps, again travelled to Reckless to promote her. General Pate did the honors in front of 3,000 Marines, dignitaries, and spectators.

Reckless retired in 1960 to private quarters at the Pendleton stables. She had four offspring, Fearless (1957-1969), Dauntless (1959-1983), Chesty (1964-1976), and her final one, a philly, died after only a month and was unnamed. In lieu of retirement pay the Marine Corps provided her with free room and board.

In her retirement years thousands of people visited her. Many of the visitors were Marines she had served with in Korea who brought their families. These men, many who wouldn’t have made it home without Reckless, showed their wives and children the brave horse and retold the epic story of her wartime exploits.

Reckless passed away on 13 May, 1968. News of her death made the front page of the newspapers. She was buried at Pendleton. Befitting her rank and combat record, she was buried with full military honors.

As with many of her comrades of the “forgotten war”, her fame was soon overshadowed by events and actions from WWII and Vietnam. Fortunately, she is not forgotten, as interest in the Korean War has risen so to have the stories of valor associated with the conflict. Several monuments have been erected in Reckless’s honor. The first was at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in 2013. The second is at MCB Camp Pendleton and was put up in 2016. Four more have been put up as well at private venues in Kentucky, Florida, Illinois, and Texas.

In 1997, she was named one of America’s greatest 100 heroes of all-time by LIFE magazine. In 2016 she was awarded the , the British honor for animal bravery and considered the animal equivalent of their highest award for combat valor the Victoria Cross. She is one of only four horses to have received the Dickin Medal and the only non-British horse recipient.

In November 2019 Reckless was part of the inaugural nine recipients of the Animals in War & Peace Medal of Bravery, an American medal created to be the equivalent of the Dickin Medal.

Another amazing story, Mason. Thanks.
Hand Salute. Ready, Two!

Category: Guest Post, Korea, Valor

Comments (9)

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  1. 5th/77th FA says:

    Son. of. a. Bitch! Just WOW! For sure an amazing story Mason. Had never heard of this. This is not Colonel Potter’s Sophie.

    Hand Salute my ass. Sergeant Reckless deserves no less than a full Battalion Gun Salute. Volley Fire…By Battalion…All Batt trees…PREPARE… FIRE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Thanks Mason!

  2. Toxic Deplorable Racist SAH B Woodman says:

    Damned allergies.
    Dusty in here.
    Semper Fi, Reckless, Semper FI.

  3. Wilted Willy says:

    Geez, what made my allergies kick in so bad today? Semper Fi indeed Reckless, Semper Fi!!!

  4. Roh-Dog says:

    If the Army and the Navy
    Ever look on Heaven’s scenes;
    They will find the streets are guarded by at least one brave horse!
    Semper Fi, SSgt Reckless!

  5. Wireman611 says:

    I never tear up. Well almost never…

  6. Green Thumb says:

    Surprised she did not have CAR.


    • AW1Ed says:

      Has the coveted NDSM, though.
      Wife had a horse that loved beer, either mixed into her oats or straight from the can- no bottles for obvious reasons. Just pop the top and she’d upend the can, and gone, drained dry. Pretty funny, everyone cutting the dust after a long trail ride.
      Good times.

    • Mason says:

      CAR wasn’t instituted until ’69. It was/is retroactive to 7 December, 1941. Technically she’d qualify.